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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Alissandratou

Empress Irene

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

My family was ambitious; when the opportunity arose, it was decided that I would be their vehicle to greatness. Little did I, Maria of Athens, anticipate the power that would fall into my hands once I became Empress Irene, wife of Emperor Leo IV.

It was on a clear day that my entourage and I sailed from Athens, arriving on the Asian shore at the magnificent palace of Hygeia. There we remained for a few days as my ladies and I rested. At last the sun rose over the calm waters of the Marmara Sea heralding our departure to Constantinople: to my destiny. A huge flotilla awaited us, silken sails were hoisted and I sailed to my future. As we approached the Harbor of Boukoleon, crowds of dignitaries and their wives waited to welcome me, all curious to have a first view of their future empress. Once formalities completed, I rode in a litter to the palace. Musicians led the procession, playing joyfully, announcing my arrival to the cheering populace. As I glanced around, I saw nothing but happiness awaiting. Ah, how innocent, how naïve I was.

Days were filled with instruction regarding the strict protocol of the court. I learned the importance of Byzantine ceremony. And through all this, I also learned to observe, analyze, penetrate thoughts and deeds of courtiers surrounding me. Patience was my companion. And as I lived among the splendor of my court, I came to realize what was at my finger tips: power became my goal. And so, I, Maria of Athens, now Empress Irene, plotted; and after my husband’s death became Basileus, the ruler, the powerful empress, one who learned that mercy was for the weak and who tolerated no fool in her life. Yes, I did away with anyone who dared step in my light, including my own son. Most importantly, I undid a wrong perpetrated by my husband: I restored our icons to their rightful place, the Church, where they may be venerated in all their splendor.

I have no regrets.

(Author: Alexandra Alissandratou, for PAOI Gala, An Evening in Byzantium, Fall, 2016)

The personage of the Empress Irene glows and glowers over the brilliant life of the Byzantine Empire. Born in Athens, she was married to the Emperor Leo IV to whom she bore one son, Emperor Constantine VI.

It was not unusual for Byzantine women, empresses in particular, to wield power, but often from behind the throne. Life within the confines of the women’s quarters of the palace was not without intrigue, plotting and great influence. But it was perhaps more subtle than that of the throne room. The 8th century Empress Irene was one to leave the secluded quarter of the “gentler” sex and rule openly as the sole sovereign of the realm. When her husband Leo IV died, she became Regent and ruled side by side with her then underaged son Constantine VI. As he came of age, Constantine had ideas of his own for the Empire and sought to escape from his mother’s control. Not one to tolerate those disagreeing with her, the ambitious Irene had her son's eyes gauged out. He died a few days later. She was ruthless as she sought to secure her place as sole ruler, the Bassilissa, the Empress.

Among her many accomplishments during her reign, Irene is known for her fight against and ultimate victory over the iconoclasts, destroyers of icons venerated by the faithful. Through her perseverance, Irene restored the holy images to the churches. And, rumor has it, that she is thought to have sought a marriage alliance between herself and Emperor Charlemagne. Possibly he thought better of it, valuing his crown, his eyes and his life???

And from what we know from histories written about her, she did indeed have no regrets, although she was overthrown eventually and died in exile.

I can’t say that I particularly like Irene, but her determination, willpower and accomplishments while empress cannot be ignored. Nor can I overlook the powers she successfully opposed, the obstacles she overcame as a woman: intelligent, ambitious, shrewd, strong. Given the times during which she lived, she was indeed a forceful leader of a brilliant, tumultuous empire: she survived; she reigned.

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